“Triple A”-- a route that visits most of the scenic highlights of the Central Brooks Range as it crosses the six million acre Gates of the Arctic National Park.
The route is best done in August, when bugs are sparse, days are long, and colors intensifying.
Anaktuvuk, Arrigetch, Ambler are three touchstones of the Gates from East to West, and as a packrafting trip in the Brooks Range it’s hard to beat these 400 miles. The route passes through the best mountains including the Doonerak region, Arrigetch Peaks and front range of Igikpak. It floats N. Fork Koyukuk, John, Pingaluk, Noatak, and Ambler. It follows game trails and bars and avoids more tussocks and brush than you’d believe.
Drive up the Dalton Highway to a little turn-off to the west where the pipeline road leaves the Dietrich Valley, just downstream of Nutirwik Creek. Hike up Koyuktuvuk, Trembley, Blarney Creeks and over Kinnorutin Pass to descend Amawk Creek and paddle N. Fork Koyukuk (PR 3 – PR 4 at high water). Climb Doonerak via a scramble up its south ridge if you like heights and broad views.
From the junction of N Fork Koyukuk and Ernie Cr there is a bit of tussocks to the Valley of the Precipices. Unbelievably this should be one of only two tussock stretches if you read your landscapes well en route to Ambler. Bar hop on mature willow bars or follow well-drained tundra ridges and noses to Graylime and Anaktuvuk Creek. If you are travelling light (i.e. have a food cache in Anaktuvuk mailed to the PO there) these creeks are mostly paddleable, except for some braids on the lower Anaktuvuk, where you can pick up an ATV trail and follow to Anaktuvuk Pass, a friendly village IMO. Peggy and I took a week to Anaktuvuk in one boat in 1986; I walked from Anatuvuk to the road in a day and a half in 2006. Plan for four-five days, three days if you have Wilderness Classic experience.
From Anaktuvuk to Takahula/Circle/Kutuk Lakes is another 4-7 days. Pick up food in Anaktuvuk that you have mailed ahead; although it may be possible to buy what you need at the Nunamuit Store. There are like five flights a day to Fairbanks, and sometimes to Coldfoot so you can bail out if you need to, or hike up a pass pas “Giant Creek” and float the Tinayguk back out toward Wiseman.
Continuing on, follow the road out of town past the airport to bar hop the John River until it piles into bluffs on river right. Get in here and paddle flat water for a couple hours marveling at how HIg/Erin and Skurka paddle al that flat water they do. But it’s better than the soggy country to either side of the river, even if on the Argo ATV trails (they might tame the tussocks but still are not so comfortable as the scenic paddle down the Upper John).
Eventually you will see the river start to drop around Kollutuk Creek into rick gardens of PR3. This is fun and splashy and easy with rain gear, no PFD, a Sawyer Paddle, and neoprene socks even in the rain, if you wear a puffy under your rain gear. Just pull up the sleeves to keep from soaking them and rest your arms on your knees. When teh steep bit ends three creeks (Ekokpuk, Masu, and Kolluturak) unite and come in from river right, doubling the flow of the John and making it feel like a small river instead of a creek. There are cottonwoods here. The river cruises nicely to Till Creek where raids begin again up to PR 3 to above Publituk Creek, where the first spruce appear (yeh!).
When the Hunt Fork comes the river turns big but the gradient has slowed. Three hours below take out at Wolverine Creek and bar hop and game trail follow west to its headwater pass. The travel is among the fastest and best westward walking on the Triple A route. White boulders make the upper stretch scenic and fun.
Cross into the upper Iniukuk and drop down and climb again over a second pass leading into the upper Nahtuk. The upper Nahtuk also has an awesome network of game trails (mostly BMWs = bear/moose/wolf) but be sure to cut over to the Pingaluk at the lowest most obvious pass as the lower Nahtuk is the worst walking I have encountered in the Brooks Range. The three hours along the upper Pingaluk’s eastern tributary isn’t much better (brush on the right side, tussocks/humocks/sponga on the left and a nasty sharp rock canyon near the bottom), but when the main Pingaluk is reached, awesome BMWs lead downstream where a two canyons offer up spicy PR 3-4. These are easily portaged on moose trails that go high on river right. If you lose them, no problem. The woods are open and the ground relatively firm and dry. The lower Pingaluk is easy PR2 for its wood and leads to the Alatna.
Nasty walking upstream to Circle Lake or Kutuk lakes along the base of the river right hillsides includes bad brush and tussocks. Longer but better is to wander out onto the old bars and sloughs and open forest of teh Alatan and wander upstream that way. I have done both and am not sure which I prefer. But there is NO good trail along the base of the hills to Arrigetch Creek.
Pick up a food drop if you can at Circle lake or Kutuk Lake or even Takahula then head up Arrigetch Creek’s “use trail” which is on river right on the first canyon’s rim. The use trail ends below the “Elephant’s Tooth” at the forks of Aquarius and Arrigetch Creeks, where it’s best to cross to the river left bank of the main Arrigetch Creek and follow caribou trails relatively high up-valley to below Ariel Peak.
make your way to the backside of Ariel and follow its north ridge (chossy but doable with fifty pounds on your back) to where the long chossy shards change to a firm rotten granite that looks like sandstone. Drop your packs here and continue on the third class scramble to tag the summit and grab a fantastic view. Back to the packs follow the loose scree between slabs to talus below and take a break at the small lake shown on the 1:250,000 maps but not the 1:63,360.
From here descend to the Awlinyak, bailing out by floating down that bouldery PR3 stream to the Alatna if you’ve had enough mountains, as there are more rocks and passes to come. Get high on the river right side of the unnamed trib coming in from the west to follow awesome caribou trails through Class III brush. Stay high for the next couple miles until the brush ends, sticking to the trails and resisting the ones that lead down to the horrible cobblestone bar.
Once in the tundra follow the nose between the split trib then veer right and climb 500 feet over Talus Top Pass. The descent is done best by dropping straight down the other side. Bears use this pass but that’s amazing. Follow meadows and rock hop to the left side of Skinny Bou Pass and follow more rocks to the tundra and slabs at the top of Kaluluktok. A nice tundra climb leads up to Mystery Pass over to the Noatak. The pass itself is full of big rocks and small, but these will be the last of the traverse, thankfully for sore feet.
Descend to the Noatak and bar hop through mature willow bars as far as the big unnamed glacial creek coming in from Igigpak’s east face on river left. The walking is great. If the water is high enjoy PR 3+ boulder gardens that are NZ-stle down to Lucky Six Creek. If the water is low, enjoy bar hopping and awesome game trails down to Lucky Six. Even at low water from here down is easy boating.
Fly out from any of a number of creeks near Portage Creek (“Pingo” or “Nelson Walker” or “12-mile Slough” ) or pick up additional food for the final, easy 100 miles to Ambler.
At low water several parties find the “Sloatak” painful and instead walk on the dry mature bars as far as Nushralutak River opposite Lake Matcherak. Curiosly there are grizzly bears fishing for Chums on Kugruk River Katmai-style. Good bar hopping and tundra with caribou trails leads to Nakmaktuak Pass. Stay on the rim on th eleft side until you can make your way through a brea in the limestone and descend to the upper Ambler. The views of the upper Ambler are beautiful and forestsed. Say good-bye to the tundra Arctic and enter the Kobuk watershed.
Good walking leads to the first big gravel beds of the Ambler. Put in here for splashy PR 3 down to Ulaneak Creek or walk, your choice. below Ulaneak the river slows and then braids and really slows on its way to Ambler.
Fly out to Kotzebue or buy food and continue down the Kobuk.
You have just completed a trip twice as long as the John Muir Trail, longer than VT Long Trail, and just a bit shorter than the Colorado Trail.
I’ll put maps, pix, and vids up on my blog (http://packrafting.blogspot.com/) shortly.